An in-depth and behind-the-scenes look at how Auston Matthews and a gang of talented young hockey players are breaking from Toronto’s troubled sporting past and rekindling the city’s love for its team.
Auston Matthews made history on October 12, 2016 by becoming the first player in the modern game to score four goals in his NHL debut. It was a momentous occasion for the talented young All-Star, but it was equally important for his newly adopted city and its storied, century-old team.
That night marked the dawn of a new era for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team had a long and colourful history, and it had always been foundational to the city’s image. But years of losing seasons had tarnished the team’s reputation and left even the most diehard fans questioning their loyalty. It seemed that each passing year brought more of the same: more mediocrity, more heartbreak, more disappointment.
But the team’s management had a plan, one that would take them where others feared to go: a total rebuild. Piece by piece, they were assembling a group of young, talented players who would reshape the team. With the arrival of Auston Matthews, the team’s first overall draft pick in over twenty years, it seemed that the Leafs were ready to break with their past.
Young Leafs follows the team through that remarkable season, tracing the divergent journeys of the players leading up to their unlikely campaign. Matthews—the prodigy with the unorthodox path to the NHL. Marner—the baby-faced talent with immense skill and an infectious energy. Nylander—the son of a former hockey professional, now looking to make his own mark. Reilly—the youngster with the mind of a general. Kadri—the maturing leader once billed as the team’s saviour.
As the ups and downs of the season unfold, the team tries to overcome the ghosts of its past and write a new future, one that is far from certain. Can a group of precocious kids bond together and become winners? Will they be able to carry the hopes of a city? Most important, will Toronto finally have a reason to believe again?
Young Leafs PROLOGUE A ROOKIE FORWARD NAMED JAKE Guentzel slowed to a stop along the boards on the right wing, seemingly innocently enough. He had a poor angle, no room, and no view of the Toronto Maple Leafs net. Another rookie, a defenceman from Moscow named Nikita Zaitsev, stood directly in front of Guentzel, had him locked up and shut down. And behind Zaitsev was forty feet of open ice to the Toronto net, where goaltender Curtis McElhinney watched what looked like nothing much unfold. Guentzel threw the puck towards the net, a what-the-hell-why-not shot. Guentzel’s shot wasn’t a hard one—not even a shot at all, really—but it pinballed like it had eyes. First it deflected off Zaitsev’s right skate and was heading well wide of the net—at least until Zaitsev’s partner on defence, Jake Gardiner, facing McElhinney, tried to kick it up to his stick. At the very moment the puck hit Gardiner’s skate you could see it in Gardiner’s posture: reflexive regret. He realized he couldn’t get his stick on the puck in time. Worse, McElhinney was on the other side of the net, giving him little chance to get back in position. He pushed hard to his right and seemed to have it covered, but then the puck slid between his legs, trickling over the goal line, not even moving fast enough to reach the back of the net.
That made the score Pittsburgh 3, Toronto 2. It was the 238th goal given up by the Leafs in the season. And yet Guentzel’s goal, the one that came in Game 81, the second-to-last of the season, was the stuff that heartbreak is made of, this time enriched by psychic plutonium. The stakes were higher that night than they had been all season long. With a win—a desperately needed win—the Leafs would be through to the postseason. With a loss in regulation, well, it wouldn’t be over, but it would look bleak, to say the least.
There were thirteen minutes to go in the game. It was 9:30 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season neared midnight.
A sense of dread pervaded the crowd, from the platinum seats where swells dropped $500 a head on a night’s entertainment to the very upper bowl, the 300 level, where a diehard on an economy plan might be able to get away with a C-note and change. As McElhinney pulled the puck from the back of the net, a collective thought bubble hung above the crowd: Again. Those fans who led a more deeply self-examined life only used that as a starting point. They had to question all that had come before. Was it all just a horrific tease, some grim, existential joke? A tortuous winter had led to this seemingly torturous end as spring was on the city. Now they could see the grand and awful design, that their team should go down, that it would be a self-inflicted wound, that all those good things from the eighty previous games would be kicked away. We have met the laughingstock, and it is us. Again.
In other recent seasons, fans had known few good times and inevitable despair. Just one year earlier, it might not have even risen as high as despair—it had started with losing and ended the same way, rarely interrupted with any good turns as the team finished last in the NHL. Fans were so practiced in losing, they couldn’t be bothered to boo. This season, though, had been a ride. An uneven one, yes. As always, there had been some tough nights. But still, in thirty-nine previous home games, the team had lost in regulation only twelve times, and in the previous month, they had been making a push to the playoffs. So much promise, and then Guentzel’s goal made the prospect of the season not lasting twenty-four more hours all too real. Over the winter, something amazing had seemed to be within the team’s grasp. But over the season’s last week, it had been slipping away.
The producer was in the ear of the cameramen for a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, who knew to look for a crowd reaction. He zoomed in on one towheaded kid, bent over in his seat, his head fully buried in his hands. His anguish was well beyond his years, just a grade schooler, likely one whose father wasn’t alive when the Leafs won the Cup back in ’67, yet somehow representative of all Maple Leafs fans.
The dread at the Air Canada Centre gave off a low-grade electric hum. The crowd hadn’t sounded this way all year. The likes of it hadn’t really been heard since the arena was raised—this dashed-hopes fusion of shortness of breath, hearts skipping a beat, and flop sweat. The hush that fell over the arena allowed those in the 300 level to hear the puck hit the blades of sticks and players’ voices calling out.
It wasn’t so complicated on the ice.
Things never are, really. The home team with everything to play for was trailing the defending Stanley Cup champions, who had nothing to play for. The home team was a young team. For a couple, this was the first Game 81 of their career; for others, not much more than that. The champions were practiced at this stuff. They were priming themselves, reloading for a deep run into spring.
The home team had an array of precocious talent, including a young player who was the consensus favourite to win the Calder Trophy, the award that goes to the league’s best rookie. This was all new, and maybe, in just getting this far, they had shot their bolt.
The away team had rested several players in advance of the playoffs, but Sidney Crosby, the two-time Hart Trophy winner and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was not one of them. Nor was Phil Kessel, who had been the Leafs’ most convenient scapegoat for six seasons until he’d been traded a couple of summers before.
You had to wonder what the NHL schedule-makers had been thinking when they drew up the last week of the season for the Maple Leafs, a frantic race to the finish, five games in seven nights. Every team would have had a patch or two like this, a ridiculous compression of the schedule to accommodate the World Cup back in the fall and the weeklong midseason break that all teams get thanks to lobbying from the NHL Players’ Association. It was simply the Leafs’ dumb luck that their worst rush would be at season’s end.
Of course, the schedule-makers likely assumed that the league would have sorted itself out by the end of the season. Those who had a shot at a Stanley Cup would have emerged, and those who were looking to land in the lottery would have been long submerged. On the former count, yes, things had been mostly sorted out—seven teams in each conference were in, with Pittsburgh, of course, among them for the eleventh season in a row. The Leafs, however, were precipitously on the bubble that Saturday night.
Every time the puck was dropped throughout the last two or three months, the Leafs had heard that this was their biggest game of the season. They had heard it as recently as two nights before, when they lay down against Tampa Bay, a game they wanted to believe was an aberration.
Over the next five minutes, the Leafs rolled over the boards and looked punched out, like a boxer grown arm-weary. They seemed overtaken by events: five full minutes without a whistle, up and back and up and back, six line changes and counting, coach Mike Babcock rolling all four lines, trying to squeeze an extra shift for Auston Matthews.
The hum gradually gave way to silence. Nineteen thousand people, and not a shout to be heard. No horn blowing. No cheers, no “Go Leafs Go.” The crowd turned utterly still, not like an arena so much as a waiting room.
With eight and a half minutes left, the whistle finally blew, and Pittsburgh defenceman Mark Streit took a penalty for hauling down Leo Komarov behind the Penguins’ net. Even on the power play, though, the Leafs were flat. Somehow they kept possession and applied some pressure, but a little of the fine touch had gone out of the game. Time was winding down. The shots on goal in the third period told the story of the game’s direction: Pittsburgh 2, Toronto 9.
After Streit was let out of the box, the game clock seemed to speed up. For a team and its fans, the seconds never come off fast enough when holding a lead. With the season in the balance, it felt like the clock had been put on fast forward. A cheer of “Go Leafs Go” sounded mournful, like “Danny Boy” going up at a wake, and as tired as the team being urged on.
Some souls, hardened by so many bad turns over the years, had already moved past this game—check that—this season. Just a couple of weeks ago, fans talked optimistically about the Leafs opening the playoffs at home. And then came the fade to black. Fans had seen this movie before. In 2012, it had come in a 1-9-2 streak in February that dropped them out of the playoffs and had then-GM Brian Burke comparing the team to “an eighteen-wheeler going right off a cliff.” A couple of years later, it was eight consecutive losses that snuffed out a shot at the playoffs. This time it seemed like it would be this four-game home stand in the very last week of the season.
What would be the postmortem? A young team that had run out of gas, yes; with the benefit of hindsight and rewrite, everyone saw that coming. Maybe it would be an optimistic spin: When this team finally comes together, they’ll make it happen at moments like this. They’ll know what to do.
It had been a remarkable season just to get to this point, one that made history on several counts. Individual records. Team records. No one had seen it coming. If there was hope of extending the season, it was going to take one more improbable turnaround. Was it too much to ask? If you were too old and had seen it fall short, then yes, to hope was to laugh. You’d have to be young and blissfully innocent to believe that one more goal or one more win was still out there.
With less than six minutes left the puck came back to Streit on the point, and he let loose. Brian Boyle, the fourth-line centre and the Leaf veteran who had been in this do-or-die moment most often before, dropped to one knee and took a shot in the leg. Stinging, still kneeling, Boyle pushed the puck ahead to Kasperi Kapanen, who skated into the neutral zone. Behind the play Boyle flexed his leg and skated to the bench for a line change, and Matthews hopped onto the ice in his place. The Leafs got the puck deep and began working the cycle along the boards in Pittsburgh’s zone. With a burst of speed, Matthews carried the puck behind the goal line, all eyes on him. Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick dropped in from the point, and Matthews hit him with a pass. Hunwick stretched to collect the puck and wasted no time, sliding a no-look pass through the slot. The puck landed right on the tape of Kapanen’s stick, and he wired it into the back of the net.
The crowd erupted as the Leafs players mobbed an ecstatic Kapanen, who, in his sixteenth NHL game, had his first goal, his first point. The players on the bench patted each other’s helmets in congratulations as the coaching staff pumped their fists. Fans who had just seconds before been resigned to their fate suddenly were on their feet, leaping and hugging—the ACC had new life.
There was just one problem. The game was still tied. As the adrenaline wore off and the teams reset for the face-off, reality set in. The Leafs hadn’t saved their season or suddenly secured their chances of a playoff spot—they’d just given it a jolt from the crash cart to keep hope’s heart beating. There were five minutes left, and Toronto still needed its win.
The Leafs had an open casting call for heroes. Some of the candidates had answered such calls before. Many hadn’t. Most, actually.
Gare Joyce has written about sports for over thirty years, winning four National Magazine Awards and landing on The Best American Sports Writing notable list seven times. Joyce is the author of eleven books, including Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm and The Devil and Bobby Hull. He is a senior writer with Sportsnet and was previously a hockey columnist for The Globe and Mail and a staff feature writer for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com. Joyce lives in Toronto, seven subway stops from the Air Canada Centre. Connect with him on Twitter @GareJoyceNHL.